Seasonal resident Lynda Cohen Loigman takes readers back in time in her novel “The Matchmaker’s Gift.” The book is set in 1994.
Loigman intertwines two stories. One is about 10-year-old Sara, who is on a ship to New York with her family in 1910. Sara introduces her sister to another passenger on board, and a light connects their foreheads, signifying their destiny. They fall in love instantly, and get married. Thus begins Sara’s journey to becoming a shadchan — a professional Jewish matchmaker.
As Sara grows up, she makes more matches, which she has to keep under wraps because it was virtually unheard-of, and considered scandalous, for an unmarried woman to become a shadchan. In Orthodox Judaism, the shadchan were men, and they railed against breaking that tradition in the new country. At one point, Sara is persecuted by the shadchan in the neighborhood.
A rabbi explains to Sara that the shadchan are persecuting her because they are derided in America, and her success threatens their livelihood. “They are afraid of you because you are everything they are not,” he tells her. “You are young and female, and you have a gift. You do not negotiate price or terms. You suggest matches because you are compelled to do so, not because anyone has hired you … Young people today want to marry for love, and that is what your gift helps them to find.”
Loigman intertwines Sara’s unfolding story with that of Sara’s granddaughter, Abby, who, as it turns out, is a divorce lawyer. The impetus was her own father’s hostile treatment of her mother during their divorce. “When Abby had first decided to become a divorce attorney, she was only 12 years old,” Loigman writes. “She had wanted to fight for women like her mother — ordinary people who needed an advocate to guide them through a difficult time.”
But despite not believing or wanting it, Abby has the same gift as her grandmother, and can spot true love. Abby wrestles with the consequences of this ability, which gets her into trouble in her line of work.
Loigman provides flashbacks of Abby and her grandmother’s strong relationship — and Sara’s wise advice about love and life in general comes up throughout the novel. “If you can’t decide what you want to fight for, love is as good a cause as any,” Sara tells her granddaughter.
In a recent email, Loigman explained what it was like writing two intertwining narratives: “In terms of challenges, this was my first dual-timeline story, and I didn’t realize how much work that would be. It was essentially writing two separate stories, and I had to pay a lot of attention to the arc of each main character. I wrote the book in the order that you read it, so I was constantly weaving together the timelines, and that was sometimes headache-inducing.”
In the book, Loigman writes at length about Jewish life and the community in Lower Manhattan during the early 20th century. It’s obvious from her author’s note how much research went into it. An inspiration for writing “The Matchmaker’s Gift” came from a conversation she had with her daughter’s roommate, who stayed with Loigman early in the pandemic. The roommate’s grandmother was an Orthodox Jewish matchmaker who was so successful that the New York Times wrote about her in 1977. Loigman discovered there were very few women among the 5,000-plus professional shadchan in the city in the early 20th century. “I assumed that the typical matchmaker at the time was an older and somewhat meddlesome woman … But my assumption couldn’t have been more wrong.”
In the email, Loigman says that people have asked her about why she added the element of magic, with the light connecting two people when a couple is destined for each other. “I have always been drawn to stories that have an element of magical realism to them,” she writes. “A story about love definitely lends itself more easily than other topics to a mystical element. Love isn’t always magical, of course, but it’s certainly nice to think that it can be. It’s also incredibly comforting to imagine that someone might actually have the power to introduce us to the person we are meant to share our life with. The idea of having a soulmate is about as magical as it gets.”
“The Matchmaker’s Gift” by Lynda Cohen Loigman, $27.99. Available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes. Lynda Cohen Loigman will be at Edgartown Books on Sept. 3 from 2 to 4 pm.